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Good Place, The

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (2016-2020). Fremulon, 3 Arts Entertainment, Universal Television. Created by Michael Schur. Directors include Dean Holland, Beth McCarthy-Miller and Morgan Sackett. Writers include Megan Amram, Joe Mande, Michael Schur and Jen Statsky. Cast includes Kristen Bell, D'Arcy Carden, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Marc Evan Jackson, Jameela Jamil and Maya Rudolph. 52 episodes – each of 22 minutes save for the double-length series finale – plus six online shorts. Colour.

When American Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell) dies she finds herself welcomed by Michael (Danson), who explains that she is in The Good Place – which resembles an idyllic suburban Utopia – as a reward for having lived a good life (see Eschatology). She is paired with her soul-mate, Chidi Anagonye (Harper) a West African professor of Ethics and Moral Philosophy; she also meets their neighbours, British socialite and charity worker Tahani Al-Jamil (Jamil) and silent Buddhist monk Jianyu Li (Jacinto). They are helped by Janet (Carden), Michael's assistant and an "anthropomorphized vessel of knowledge" who can bring anything into existence with a thought.

Eleanor reveals to Chidi that she is not Eleanor Shellstrop, "a lawyer who got innocent people off death row", but rather Eleanor Shellstrop, telemarketer, who had been employed to "lie to old people and scare them into buying fake medicine"; when she proudly adds, "I was the top salesperson for five years running.", Chidi has to explain: "That's worse ... you get how that's worse?" Reluctantly, Chidi agrees to keep her secret and teach her moral philosophy, so she can become a good person, and hopefully avoid being sent to the Bad Place. She is soon joined by Jianyu, who is really Jason Mendoza, a not too-bright petty criminal, also there in error. The situation become tangled, the interactions of the four only increasing their suffering ... until, at the close of season one, Eleanor realizes that is the point, declaring this to be the Bad Place (see Conceptual Breakthrough; Dystopia). Michael gives a maniacal laugh.

An architect of the Bad Place's tormenting scenarios, Michael had wanted to focus on mental rather than physical Torture; he stole and reprogrammed a Good Place Janet to create and maintain the neighbourhood then selected the four to experiment on – Chidi being an extreme procrastinator, and Tahani's good deeds an attempt to outshine her more successful sister. Michael's boss, Shawn (Jackson), grudgingly allows him to wipe the four's memories (see Memory Edit), reboot Janet and try again – but, he insists, only once ...

After the 802nd failure Michael begs the four to pretend they do not know what's going on; Eleanor agrees – but only if he also takes Chidi's ethics class. Shawn eventually declares the experiment a success and orders the four to be transferred to the proper Bad Place. Instead, the reformed Michael takes them, with Janet, to the Judge (Rudolph) of the Afterlife. The six argue that the current set-up is flawed: the interconnected nature of modern life – every choice is linked to a bad action somewhere – means no one has entered the real Good Place for over 500 years; whilst people – as shown by Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jianyu – can improve in the right circumstances. The Judge agrees to test this, firstly (season three) by having the four avoid dying on Earth, to see if they would have improved (see Alternate History); then (season four), taking the scientific approach: repeating an experiment to see if the same result follows – the group will run their own Good Place, to attempt reforming four other people destined for the Bad Place. Eventually the Judge is persuaded to approve a fairer system. The six are now allowed to enter the real Good Place ... Michael is promptly conned into taking charge, whilst Hypatia of Alexandria pleads to Chidi and Eleanor. "You got to help us, we are so screwed."

She explains that the eternal lotus-land that is the Good Place has atrophied the brains of its Immortal inhabitants – rendering them into "happiness Zombies". The group do come up with an answer: there will be an end – when people are ready they can walk through a door and this existence will cease; what comes next, if anything, is unknown even to Janet (that their solution might be a Suicide booth by another name is not broached). In the finale Jianyu, Chidi and Eleanor eventually walk through the door; Tahani chooses to work as an architect in the new system; Michael, as is his wish, becomes human and goes to live on Earth.

The show comes down on the side of nurture in the Nature vs Nurture debate, arguing that most bad people have been shaped by their experiences and can be reformed when they receive love and support (see Psychology). The series heavily integrates philosophy (see Metaphysics) into its plot: for example, the initial premise is based on the play Huis clos (first performed 1944; 1945; trans Stuart Gilbert as In Camera in anth 1946; vt No Exit 1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) – the origin of the phrase "Hell is other people"; Identity and free will versus determinism are discussed; Judith Jarvis Thomson's Thought Experiment, the Trolley Problem, is demonstrated. Despite the similarities, The Good Place and Bad Place are not Heaven and Hell (see Religion) – both are ruled by committees, though the Bad Place's functionaries are demons (see Gods and Demons). There is advanced Technology: The Bad Place has laboratories, whose Inventions include an illegal portal to Earth (see Matter Transmission) and a body suit that can morph into different people. The whole set up might be a Virtual Reality: the many Janets, Good and Bad, are said to be extensions of a central mainframe (see Computers). Our Janet politely insists she is neither a Robot nor a girl, but does glitch on occasion, and – as she is upgraded after each reboot, experiencing over 800 – she becomes fully sentient (see AI). At one point Chidi glimpses what underlies their experiences: "I just saw a trillion different realities folding onto each other like thin sheets of metal forming a single blade." Michael's blasé response is, "Yeah, yeah, the Time Knife, we've all seen it."

Schur has acknowledged Lost (2004-2010) as an influence on the show's structure. The Good Place is one of the major genre shows of its era: intelligent, thoughtful and very funny (see Humour). It won four consecutive Hugos for dramatic presentation (short form) with "The Trolley Problem" (19 October 2017), "Janet(s)" (6 December 2018), "The Answer" (21 November 2019) and "Whenever You're Ready" (30 January 2020); the last also won the Nebula Ray Bradbury Award. [SP]

see also: Parks and Recreation.


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